Drug Use in American Horse Racing

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Thursday, November 19, 2020

Drug use and drug testing in American horse racing has been a pretty hot topic over the past couple of years. The resurgence of this conversation really took off when Santa Anita was having what appeared to be a rash outbreak of breakdowns in racehorses in 2019. That season of horse racing ushered in a new era of rule discussions from drugs to whip use. Both highly controversial, because when used properly, are highly effective and in some instances a true safety issue. And, most horse racing fans would expect that the top trainers, vets and riders in the country would be using both properly. In fact, many trainers strive to train and race horses drug free as much as possible.

But then, the FBI dropped a bombshell on the racing industry when they indicted Trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis as well as 25 other people on federal charges in connection with the use of performance-enhancing drugs on racehorses back in March 2020. The others included several assistant trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists and drug distributors. The drugs that this case deals with are serious. They are not the everyday Lasix or therapeutic joint injections. They are truly performance enhancing drugs like SFG-1000, which supposedly includes "growth factors" like fibroblast growth factor and hepatocyte growth factor, both of which are designed to improve tissue repair and increase stamina. It's a drug that Jason Servis was told there is no test for but can sometimes appear as a false positive for "dex." 

Another product used by Navarro was called "red acid." It is allegedly a performance enhancing "drench" that is designed to rapidly increase a racehorse's performance and is also undetectable in drug tests. Based on the FBI's indictment, these drugs are responsible for the death of six harness horses per an intercepted phone call between harness trainer Nicholas Surick and Michael Tannuzzo. Lasix is nothing compared to this stuff.

Yesterday, the United States Anti-Doping Agency's CEO, Travis Tygart, expressed excitement at the idea of his agency taking over the drug testing and enforcement for horse racing across the United States. This is part of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act that is currently moving through the pipeline in Congress. The idea is that the USADA will be standardizing the rules and the testing for the sport. Tygart told Horse Racing Nation, "The value in sport is that no one knows the outcome, and you can watch it and have the value of uncertainty. And it's based on skill and talent, not covert drugs that are being used to win."

While the legislation makes moves to support the industry and make valuable changes so that situations like the indictment above do not occur, it's still controversial and for good reason. Lawmakers are not "boots on the ground" people and in any equestrian sport, even racing, it's vital to have the experience and perspective of seasoned horsemen. The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and other harness racing organizations have publicly opposed the bill. They have made it clear that they felt excluded from the process and they oppose elements of the bill, specifically the ban on Lasix. 

Most everyday horse racing fans and gamblers are not "horse people." They don't understand the drugs completely and the "whats and whys" behind how they are used. They just know that they've read articles about why they are used and why they might not be good. Here's an explanation of a couple of the most controversial drugs as well as other factors that are affecting horse racing today. 

Lasix. Why is Lasix (also known as furosemide) so controversial? Lasix is controversial because it is performance enhancing in a sense, but it is also a valuable life-saving drug. Lasix is a diuretic that is used to prevent the horse from bleeding through their nose as a result of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). According Jeff Blea, the chairman of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' and a Southern California veterinarian, "It's the only medication we know of that scientifically reduces or mitigates EIPH in Thoroughbred racehorses." EIPH has a long name that doesn't entirely explain to the layperson what is happening in the horse's body. Most people know it as "bleeding," but it's more than that. Due to how the body of the horse is built, when the horse is breezing or racing in heavy exercise, the pressure created within the body causes the capillaries in the lungs to burst. The horse's heart does not relax between beats during intense exercise as it does in other species and can reach up to 230 beats per minute according to research studies. The changes in pressure in a horse are two to three times higher than other species, hence the greater the increase in pulmonary capillary pressure and blood pressure rupture. 

They don't show racing fans this side of horse racing on television. The blood that comes out of the nose, is coming from the horse's lungs. If a horse comes out of training or a race bleeding from the nose, it's next race it will be on Lasix. Many trainers and vets use it as a prevention measure as well. The idea being that if a horse is going to bleed, then it's better to not even chance it from the start. Lasix is a diuretic that reduces the pressure in the horse's body and prevents the lungs from filling with blood. There have been horses not on Lasix, and not just Thoroughbreds but Quarter Horses as well, that literally fell down dead after winning a race and walking out of the winner's circle because they basically drowned from the inside out on their own blood. It also comes into play in areas where the altitude is higher and therefore there is a lack of oxygen. Lasix has been so prolific in racing since the 70s that horses racing for the first time on Lasix are marked in the racing form. But preventing the death of quality horses is why so many trainers do not want to give up the option of Lasix in an outright ban of the drug.

Those who are anti-Lasix will often argue that the Europeans don't use it. That's not entirely true. The Europeans are allowed to use Lasix in training, but not during their races. In fact, in this year's Breeders Cup races, three of the European horses were on Lasix for the first time - PEACEFUL, TEREBELLUM and AUDARYA. How did it work out? Well, AUDARYA won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. 

The other drug that is being scrutinized of late is clenbuterol. What is it? Clenbuterol is a bronchodilator that was approved in May 1998 by the FDA as a treatment for horses with COPD. It is by far the best treatment for airway obstruction. However, it has a steroidal effect that helps to build muscle mass. Therefore, because it was legal, trainers began putting every horse on the drug to build muscle and enhance performance. In 2014, Los Alamitos banned the drug at any detectable level and the American Quarter Horse Association followed suit, as nearly every running QH tested positive for it. 

Now, nearly every racing state allows the use of the drug in training only. The drug must be completely withdrawn from the system within 14 days of competition. However, California racing has enacted stricter rules stating that it must be prescribed by a vet and not used for more than 30 days. Any horse on the drug must be on the vet's list until an official test sample after a workout shows there is no level of the drug in the blood or urine. And finally, a horse that tests positive for clenbuterol in post-race our out-of-competition testing will be placed on the vet's list until an investigation is conducted to determine the circumstances of the drug's presence and until subsequent test fail to detect the drug. With these rules, California has been able to reduce the use of clenbuterol to a couple hundred out-of-competition horses rather than more than half of the Thoroughbreds in California being on it. 

The Mid-Atlantic alliance of racing interests has also cracked down on the drug. Earlier in the year, in an op/ed in the Thoroughbred Daily News, trainer Mark Casse stated clenbuterol is "the most abused drug in our industry." Scott Palmer, the equine medial director for the New York State Gaming Commission, stated this week that 77% of runners trained by Servis, Navarro and Tannuzzo were found to have the drug in their systems. Palmer states that the drug has basically been used as a work around on the ban on anabolic steroids, "Clenbuterol is a drug that has, in addition to its ability to affect lower airway disease and improve it, [an ability to act as] a repartitioning agent [that] is used in humans for body-building effects."

The Mid-Atlantic area now has a 1.21 fatal incidence rate per 1,000 starters this year, down from 1.8 last year and much better than the national average according to Palmer. 99.9% of starts in the Mid-Atlantic have been run without a fatality, according to the statistics. 

Despite how it may appear, we are making ground on the drug issues in horse racing. However, there's still another factor that has been seen amongst many small tracks around the country. That issue is human drug use and the effect it has had on horse racing. In 2016, Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas had five horses suddenly test positive for meth. The rulings stated that urine samples after the races showed the drug at 0.5 nanograms per milliliter. A nonogram is one-billionth of a gram. If anything, this shows how sensitive the drug tests really are. While we don't know the specifics on how these horses became positive for the drug, we do know that environmental and human contamination can occur. Marsha Rountree, executive director of the Texas Horsemen's Partnership said during a commission meeting August 9th, 2016 that the contamination levels were so low that the horses were likely contaminated by the grooms using the drug. This has happened at other tracks around the country and there's no denying that our country has a serious meth problem. Not only do we need to drug test the horses, but the stable employees as well.

All in all, there's no denying that we need strict drug rules. We can't allow top trainers and even lower level trainers to take advantage of the system as the indicted trainers have. But, it is vitally important that seasoned horsemen and equine professionals have input in how this happens and from every breed. It's easy to think of horse racing as just Thoroughbreds, but there are other breeds that race. Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, Appaloosas and Arabians also race and any rule that is developed by the government will apply to those breeds as well. All rules, regulations and legislation needs to be thoroughly discussed and debated by all organizations involved and at all levels. If they are affected by it, they need to be a part of the discussion.

The Horse Racing and Integrity Act is still in the senate and it is not clear when it will pass through, but when it does, the USADA states they will be the "best friend" of those who follow the rules and adapt to the guidelines and those guidelines will be standardized across the United States.


Get today's full picks for all tracks and races at Guaranteed Tip Sheet.